MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
How does Zarco do it?
No doubt about it, Johann Zarco was MotoGP’s new kid on the block last season. Except he wasn't much of a kid at all, says Mat Oxley
The Frenchman was 26-years-old when he made his premier-class debut in Qatar. Compare that to MotoGP’s previous red-hot rookies Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales, who were both 20 when they graduated to the premier class.
France isn’t mad about toddler racing like Spain, so Zarco started relatively late and didn’t get fully serious until he was in his teens. When he was 16 he loaded up his 50cc scooter and rode 150 miles to live with the family of Laurent Fellon, who has been his mentor and manager ever since. Zarco was almost 19 when he made his GP debut, by which age Márquez had already won two world championships.
Last season Zarco brought amazing speed and aggression to MotoGP, pushing several older riders into pot-calls-kettle-black mode. This is something I always find hilarious, like Keith Richards decking fellow Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood for “threatening the band’s existence” when Wood got into crack cocaine shortly after Richards had weaned himself off.
But Zarco’s ability to rough up the status quo isn’t the only thing that makes him so impressive. He won two Moto2 world titles largely thanks to his glass-smooth riding technique, which he used to save the tyres to give him a killer advantage in the final laps. He brought the same technique to MotoGP, which makes more of a difference now than it would’ve done before the class switched to Dorna electronics and Michelins, because now riders need to pay more attention to traction, wheelspin and tyre life.
MotoGP’s current traction control is much less sophisticated than the money-no-object factory kit, so the rider must control wheelspin with his right wrist, which is no doubt a bigger ask for those accustomed to grabbing a big handful and letting the factory-spec little black box do the hard work. On top of that, Michelin’s rear tyre offers less drive grip than the Bridgestone’s, so the rider must think and work twice as hard: not only must he search for the best drive, he must also take care to save the rear tyre, because too much spin doesn’t only hurt lap times, it also overuses the tyre.
Even in Argentina, where Zarco was smoking the tyre out of corners, he was able to maintain momentum. His secret, beyond his throttle technique, is his feel for the tyres, so he can adapt his riding technique, corner by corner and lap by lap, according to tyre performance and tyre wear.
Thus, rookie Zarco and his second-hand, year-old Tech 3 Yamaha often embarrassed factory riders Viñales and Valentino Rossi. The factory team raced four different chassis last season, complaining to the end, but when Zarco tried a 2017 chassis at the Valencia post-season tests he loved it.
Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.